Back to basics: the kettlebell

Published 10:03 pm Friday, October 14, 2016

The kettlebell: a round, cast iron weight with a handle. You may have seen these odd, cannonball-like objects in the gym and have been intimidated or unsure of how to use them, but don’t be discouraged by them. With proper training and technique, the kettlebell can improve functional fitness, total body strength and cardiovascular endurance.

The kettlebell is not new to the fitness world, in fact, they’ve been around for hundreds of years. They were first used in Russian culture as counterweights for grains and produce on farms and in markets, not as a means to improve physical fitness. It became apparent over time that the people who handled these weights regularly developed significant strength and conditioning and that they could be used to improve physical fitness. Soviet military forces began using them as a key piece of equipment in their physical training regime in 1948 and kettlebell lifting became a national sport. Today, they have become increasingly popular in fitness centers and in military training due to their functionality, ability to burn calories rapidly and the fact that they offer the combination of cardiovascular and strength training in one workout.

The shape and handling of a kettlebell is much like that of a purse. The kettlebell is not the center of mass like a dumbbell is in your hand, but it offsets the center of gravity. When used correctly, it creates total body movements that require your body to work harder to maintain balance and use many different muscle groups at one time. When you use dumbbells or weight machines, you isolate muscles and work individual areas of your body. With the use of kettlebells, you use your whole body to move the weight of the bell, recruiting more muscle fibers to complete the movement, and as a result, you increase your overall strength and your cardiovascular endurance.

Kettlebell training is also great for people who claim that time is their barrier to exercise. This unique workout has the ability to burn calories rapidly. Studies have shown that the average participant (in this study the ages were from 29-46) burned about 20 calories per minute during a typical kettlebell workout, which included swinging and lifting exercises to a certain rhythm in an interval format. That equates to 400 calories during a 20-minute workout, and researchers say that is equivalent to running a six-minute mile or cross-country skiing uphill at a fast pace. Kettlebell training provides a more intense workout than standard weightlifting because it uses total body movements and increases your heart rate, which allows you to burn calories rapidly and improve not only your strength but your cardiovascular endurance.

If you’re not familiar with using kettlebells, there are a few key things you need to know. First of all, always warm up before any workout; the movements in a kettlebell workout incorporate your entire body and increase your heart rate. Kettlebells are designed for intense, total body movements with a lot of force and can be abused if you’re inexperienced. The kettlebell moves smoothly with the body but it adds instability and you must be very cautious about your form and technique. Think about swinging around a gallon of milk or a bag of dog food; to avoid injury, you need to know what you’re doing. With that said, it’s important to work with an exercise professional who is comfortable with using kettlebells so they can help you learn how much weight you can use and how to use the kettlebell correctly. Lastly, if you’re going to purchase your own kettlebells, make sure they have a smooth handle to avoid injury to your hands. It is also advised to purchase them in sets of three in order to allow progression to a heavier weight when you’re ready. For inactive and active females, I would suggest starting out with 4–6 kilogram (9–13 pound) and 6–8 kilogram (13–18 pound) kettlebells, respectively. For inactive and active males, I would suggest starting out with 8 kilogram (18 pound) and 8–12 kilogram (18-26-pound) kettlebells, respectively.

One of the most popular kettlebell exercises is the kettlebell swing. You start in the squat stance with your knees slightly bent and your buttocks out with the kettlebell in your hands, hanging down in front of you. You want to use both hands while holding the kettlebell on the handle for this exercise. Next, thrust the kettlebell forward and up with your arms straight. As you come up, load your hamstrings (the back of your thigh) and clench your buttocks. Do this all in one motion, driving the heels into the floor. There are many other exercises that you can do with a kettlebell, and all of them are appropriate for men and women to improve cardiovascular endurance, overall strength and functional fitness.

Kettlebell training is no fad. It offers the opportunity for rigorous training that result in total body conditioning, and, in my opinion, it is also fun. There is no doubt that kettlebells will remain a mainstay in fitness centers for years to come. As more people make fitness a priority in their lives, they’ll find that the kettlebell is not as intimidating or hard to use as they once thought, and they’ll learn how to use it successfully with great results.

Meagan Overman, MS, is a clinical exercise physiologist at Vidant Wellness Center and can be reached at 252-975-4236.